On Wednesday morning, President Obama sent a letter to Congress to accompany his administration’s draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS, in which he attempted to allay concern over the potential for mission creep that could lead to the sort of quagmire that Americans have become so weary of. In his letter, the President gave some examples of how that authorization might be used, particularly in terms of ground troops:
My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations. The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership. It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.
It has escaped no one’s notice that the actual AUMF itself doesn’t contain any such specificity. It authorizes military force against “ISIL or associated persons or forces,” which it defines as “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”
It also describes the limitations of the AUMF this way:
The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.
At Wednesday’s White House daily briefing, reporters keyed in on that section in particular, but really, you could drive a fleet of tanks through all the wiggle room this AUMF gives the commander-in-chief, especially when you consider the limits to which the 2001 AUMF has been stretched. The President is still relying on that one to authorize the current operations against ISIS, and has already said, on multiple occasions, that it includes the use of ground forces in numerous circumstances. Even just taken at his word, the President has ruled in anything from the several thousand troops we’ve already deployed, to anything short of 100,000 troops.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest recognized the broadness of the language in the AUMF, and offered the President’s existing strategy as the limiting factor, which is what they have done all along. As Josh pointed out, it would be damn near impossible to craft an AUMF that itemized limitations for every situation, and ill-advised. But as Earnest also pointed out, this new AUMF doesn’t expand at all on the authority that the President is already claiming under the old AUMF, which the President says should be “refined” to “tailor the authorities granted” by it.
What the President’s AUMF does have going for it is a three-year expiration date, unless reauthorized. Then, we’ve just got to count on Congress to take responsibility to repeal the 2001 AUMF, and/or to limit future authorizations.
However, the way Congress has slid more and more war powers across the table to the executive branch, Americans increasingly have only their trust in the President’s judgment to comfort them. This administration has been rather up front about the fact that they will do whatever they think they have to, and call it whatever it needs to be called.
When we elect our next president, that judgment should be foremost in voters’ minds. If there’s any comfort to be found here, it’s that President Obama could have gotten a Death Star from Congress if he’d asked for it, but he didn’t ask for it.